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Father Matthew Buettner: In the Penitential Act, we approach God's altar with humility
In previous columns, I described the Introductory Rites of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: the entrance procession, incensation of the altar, the Sign of the Cross and the celebrant's formal greeting. Now, let's continue our discussion of the Introductory Rites by examining the "Penitential Rite." And as we enter this discussion of what's now called the Penitential Act, we discover that we are in the midst of a conversation on prayer.
As I mentioned in previous columns, from beginning to end the Mass is a prayer – in fact, the highest act of prayer known to mankind, since the Mass is the worship of the Son of God rendered unto the Father. As members of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church, we participate in His perfect worship. The Mass therefore teaches us how to pray, educates us in the language and grammar of prayer.
The first lesson of prayer, the primary movement of the Mass, is one of humility. In imitation of Christ, the Son of God who humbled Himself to become man, who humbled Himself to take upon Himself our sins, who humbled Himself to undergo His Passion, crucifixion and death on our behalf, we must humble ourselves. The Church seeks to imitate the humility of Christ by first recognizing our sins and acknowledging the fact that we are sinners in desperate need of God's abundant mercy. We must first recognize that we are empty, before we can be filled. Therefore, the celebrant invites us to pause, examine our conscience in silence, and ask for God's mercy and forgiveness: "Brethren (Brothers and sisters), let us acknowledge our sins and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries."
During this brief moment of silence at the beginning of the Mass, we might be wondering what to think about: What I did last night or the child who's disrupting my peace or what to eat for breakfast after Mass? During this precious moment, we should examine our conscience and acknowledge our sins. Above all, we need to become aware of our overall need for forgiveness and mercy for the sins we have committed and the good we have omitted, which we may have forgotten. It is a moment to prepare our souls to abandon our old sinful habits and seek the grace and mercy God has prepared for us in receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. If we become conscious of having committed mortal sins, we should resolve to go to the sacrament of penance as soon as possible and refrain from receiving Holy Communion. Although the Penitential Act does not grant absolution for mortal sins, it does help us to receive forgiveness for our less serious sins – venial sins – which are forgiven when we receive Holy Communion with humility and love.
After a few moments of silence, the celebrant may begin a prayer, known by its first word in Latin, the "Confiteor":
"I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
[and striking our chests, we continue:]
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God."
When we pray the Confiteor as a community, we confess we are guilty of sins in thought, word and deed, as well as sins of omission. The three-fold confession of sin, ending with the superlative "my most grievous fault," is a traditional formula meant to highlight the seriousness of our faults and sins. It is one of the more noticeable changes we will see this November in the revised English translation of the Missal.
Then, continuing in prayer, we seek the intercession of: Blessed Mary, ever-Virgin, who was conceived without sin and remained sinless throughout her life; the angels, who battle with Satan and defeat evil; the saints, who were sinners like us but cooperated with God's grace and mercy to defeat their own sinfulness and persevered in holiness of life; and finally, the members of the Church Militant (the pilgrim Church on earth, our brothers and sisters) to pray for us. The celebrant completes this prayer with a prayer of absolution that begs for God's mercy, seeks forgiveness and leads us to heaven.
Finally, the Penitential Act may close with the ancient threefold litany: "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison."
This litany of mercy, which means "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy," is the only surviving vestige of the Greek language remaining in the Latin Rite of the Church. Whether the Mass is offered in Latin, English, Spanish or any other language, this Greek prayer may be recited by the celebrant or deacon, or may be chanted by the celebrant, deacon or cantor.
This formula comes straight from the Gospel. Oftentimes a great healing by Christ was preceded by the humble cry of a beggar, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
This is precisely where we find ourselves at the beginning of Mass: poor beggars in need of God's mercy. That is why we approach the throne of our Heavenly Father in humility from the very beginning.
Now that we have acknowledged our sinfulness before God and our neighbor, we now sing the Biblical hymn of praise, known by its first word in Latin, The Gloria, which we will discuss next week.
Father Matthew Buettner is the pastor of St. Dorothy Church in Lincolnton. This is excerpted from "Understanding the Mystery of the Mass – Revisited," available for purchase online at tedeumfoundation.org. Proceeds will go toward the purchase of land for a future seminary in the Diocese of Charlotte.
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